Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare's early plays, is a tale of friendship, love, betrayal and ultimately friendship again. Valentine (Guy Hughes) goes to Milan: his friend Proteus (Dharmesh Patel) stays behind for love of Julia (Leah Brotherhead) but is forced by his father to follow Valentine to Milan. Julia dresses as a boy and follows Proteus. Once in Milan, we find that Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia (Aruhan Galieva) whose father, however, wants her to marry rich Thurio. Valentine and Sylvia plan to steal away and Valentine tells his friend Proteus of his plans. Proteus, however, has fallen head over heels in love with Sylvia and betrays his friend in order to remove him from the scene. Mayhem reigns in a typically Shakespearean way but all ends sort of well. It is a play about two very immature young men written by an immature Shakespeare – not one of his strongest plots, although it contains themes that occur again and again throughout Shakespeare's plays – love, friendship, betrayal, and the power of fathers over their sons and daughters.
Having never seen the play before, I was keen to fill this gap, but by the interval I was somewhat bemused by what the director was trying to do. The words at the beginning were spoken so fast that, in that echoing space, they were hard to hear and the actors seemed to sing and play their instruments rather randomly. Reading the programme in the interval helped me understand the thinking behind the production. The idea was to produce a 'musical-led Shakespeare' (I presume this means 'music-led') set in 1966 – the idea of the 1960s is to portray a time of hope and dreams – the flower-power era when the world belonged to the young. Verona is a staid boring place (Jim Reeves type music) whereas Milan is 'Pop World', but Verona features for such a short time in the play that this difference is not clear enough and the music in the first half is too bitty and not obviously of any genre in particular. In the second half, the setting moved largely to some woods and there the outfits and the music were much more obviously 1960s – the Yoko Ono glasses, the Afghan coats, etc.
There is no doubt that the cast is an extremely talented (and fit!) group of actors, able to turn their hands many things and, after a little while, they slowed down and it was possible to hear Shakespeare's words. They could be funny - the servant Charlotte Mills and her dog (actually the musician Fred Thomas) had us all laughing; they could be moving – Leah Brotherhood as Julia for instance talking about her lost love; they could sing; they could play different instruments. Nevertheless, for the play to be performed in 2 ½ hours with so many musical interludes, a lot of Shakespeare's words must have been cut. I have seen Shakespeare performed in costumes from all ages and that is fine, interesting, but please don't cut his words. I don't feel it is necessary to apologise for Shakespeare by replacing his words with music and this is what this interpretation of the play seems to do.